It’s really no wonder that often when westerners find themselves drifting, looking for more from life, they drop everything and journey off into the unknown, and what alien country is more fitting than India, a spiritually rich nation who’s national motto is, satyameva jayate – truth alone triumphs. For Rocky Braat, this simple phrase seems perfectly appropriate. Feeling bored and unfulfilled by life in Pittsburgh, Braat decided to take off for India in search of authenticity, but he didn’t expect that he’d find it living in an impoverished compound for women and children infected with HIV or AIDS. Knowing his friend’s impulsive disposition, filmmaker Steve Hoover assumed his glowing adulation for the country to be a passing fascination, but after making the trek out himself, found that the kids and the communal culture gave life a new perspective and left a monumentally emotional impact on them both. Hoover’s vivacious Blood Brother documents their experience by acquainting us with the massively personable children they came to love and exuding more heart and compassion than most cinematic works in recent memory.
Rocky’s journey began as a bright eyed tourist trying to escape his past for a period, but he became invested in India when he met the children on a brief stop in their rural village. His natural openness and playful demeanor was a perfect match for these affectionate little kids who lacked the attention they deserved and the care they needed. To foster these children almost immediately became his number one priority, but against his will, he was forced to return to Pittsburgh. Upon his homecoming, the menial inconsequence of the American way seemed more futile than ever and the highlight of everyday became a brief Skype chat with a few of the kids. So, leaving his baffled loved ones behind, he sold everything he owned, packed up a suitcase full of toys, and returned to the orphanage to stay until his visa expired. A year later, Hoover was convinced to make the trek to India to join his friend and to meet the young people who have so deeply altered him and the young woman he hoped to marry.
Though centered around the misery of HIV/AIDS and a looming despondency in the wake of personal upheaval, Hoover’s film is positively bursting with life. Instead of dwelling on the fact that they live with no running water or that their health could take a turn for the worst at any given moment, he depicts these ailing children as the carefree kids that they generally are. They run amuck, play with toys, wrestle and seem to truly appreciate the life they’ve been given, even if they have been dealt a hand that’s sure to cut their’s short.
Despite the cultural gap, these kids seem to absolutely adore Rocky, and eventually Steve as well, attaching ‘Anna’ to the end of each of their names as a term of endearment. When Hoover first arrives and finds himself witnessing the jubilant re-welcoming Rocky receives, you can truly feel the love, but it’s thanks to his knack for visually immersive storytelling that not only the emotional resonance of this moment and so many others remain intact, he’s also able to deduce the experience of living in this culture for the first time within a lucid patchwork of moving images. His experience with music videos and commercial production seems to have rendered him perfectly suited for amping up energy with quick cutting and overlapping audio loops that tie everything together. Often the edit is a constant stream of vibrant images that engulf us in Indian culture and the vitality of the kids, but Hoover knows when to reign it in and let the camera roll on with agonizing austerity.
Setting a deathly serious tone from the opening frame, the camera follows Braat into the murk of night trying desperately to save a child’s life alongside her despairing father in vain. Their tale, though bathed in the spirit of hope, is one of transformation at the hands of human suffering and a deep seeded desire for kinship – something Rocky sorely lacked growing up. His feeling of fulfillment is but a trade-off for which he fearlessly faces the risks of disease and the emotional torment that comes with watching those he loves deteriorate before his eyes.
Unlike Hoover, who’s journey ends back in the US, Rocky must decide if he can overcome grief for the greater good of helping others still in need. Like its big hearted protagonist, Blood Brother offsets the horrors of HIV/AIDS with a genuine statement that small scale human compassion can be world altering. Wearing their hearts on their sleeves, Steve Hoover and his best friend have pieced together a stunning docu debut that will surely win the hearts of all but those most callously cynical while moving charitable mountains for a deserving cause.
Reviewed on May 3rd at the 2013 Hot Docs Film Festival – Special Presentations Programme. 93 min